Kingship, malkhut, is one of the most central themes of Rosh HaShanah. But what does this mean to us? How does proclaiming and imaging God as King impact our religious lives or shape the way in which we relate to Rosh HaShanah?
A debate between the poskim regarding a Talmudic blessing can help us get at an answer. The Talmud teaches that when one sees a king, she must recite the blessing: “Blessed are you God…who gives of Your glory to flesh and blood.” But the scope of this is not fully clear, especially as it applies to the modern era. Consider two cases: a prime minister or president on the one hand, and a constitutional monarch on the other. The first has enormous power. The second has almost no power, but he or she has the regalia and rituals of the monarchy. Which of these two attributes—power or pomp—matters most here?
For Rav Ovadyah Yosef, it is power. A king’s divine-like glory derives from that fact that “people’s lives are in his hand, just as is the case with the Heavenly King.” Crowns and robes are irrelevant. In contrast, R. Betzalel Stern took it for granted that this blessing would be recited nowadays when seeing a queen (it seems clear that he was referring to Queen Elizabeth II), and he added that we should go out of our way to observe royal pomp and circumstance, as this will give us a sense of the Divine glory.
Is God’s kingship about God’s power over us? That’s how I thought about it for many years. Thinking about it this way makes Rosh HaShanah a Yom ha’Din—a Day of Judgement, a day in which our life is hanging in the balance. For some, this might be a helpful prod for growth and self-improvement, but I’m not so sure. For my money, I will choose to follow R. Stern’s ruling and to see in God’s kingship something high and elevated, something that transcends the mundane and helps us rise above ourselves. I will strive to have God’s malkhut imbue me not with fear, but with inspiration.
When Queen Elizabeth passed away just a short while ago, many people commented that as queen she served as a symbol of the values, ideals and aspirations of the nation, that she acted as a unifying force, giving the people a shared identity. We Jews could use something like that. Something to strengthen our identity and bring us together as a people. Something to help us transcend our divisions and remind us of what really matters.
This is what I would like my relationship with God as King to look like for me. This is what I would like it to look like for all of us.